Adjunct professors rarely if ever show up in fiction, but Alex Kudera of Clemson University traced a day in the life of Cyrus Duffleman, representative of the academic underclass majority that fills most faculty slots. His long day, a mix of intellectual combat and humiliation by administrations, tenured faculty, students, took place 10 years ago during a period of protracted social and cultural unrest. We caught up with Cyrus to see what had changed... if anything.
Int. So, Professor Duffleman, what has changed over the past decade for adjuncts?
Cyrus: Joe, it's the same as ever out there. Rich are getting richer, poor poorer. Even within the adjunct ranks we have amazing inequality. Our median instructor is screwed, of course, at about 22K a year, so that means half of us are even more thoroughly fucked, earning less than that. Could you imagine raising a family or paying back mortgage or student loans with that income? No, right? If milk and gas are both around 4 bucks a gallon, you gotta drink water and get your car to run on grass just to survive and get to your classes. Sorry, for the French, but I'm living a bit looser these days. I can't help it.
Int. How are adjuncts managing with restricted course loads as a result of the AHCA?
Cyrus: Not well, I'm afraid. What happens is with the new rules, administration won't pay for healthcare, so they have to make sure that their employees cannot be seen as full-time workers according to the AHCA definition. This was already the case at public universities in many states, where 23 hours per week was a common limit for tutoring centers and two classes were the maximum any non-full-timer could teach. But now it's almost universal, whether an one is at private or public school, so the adjuncts are losing the cash that comes with the extra class they desperately need, and they are not necessarily gaining health benefits unless they were already destitute enough to qualify for Medicaid. I would say a bunch of them have bought the high-deductible AHCA bronze plans, but then I'm not exactly sure of what happens if they use their coverage and get a bill in the mail for services that aren't covered under the deductible. Which would be most of them under the high-deductible plans.
So I'd give AHCA mixed reviews for adjuncts and freelancers, some good, some not so good. I already had a high-deductible catastrophic plan, but it didn't qualify as health coverage under the new rules. I switched over to a bronze plan, and AHCA has ensured I have more complete coverage and I can't lose it, but for actual money out of pocket each year, I think it'll be a wash. My premium might jump, and then I'll have to steal from my cheesesteak fund or stop taking taxis when I know I'm running late for my 8:40 a.m. Sometimes I'm in a rush, and I tell the driver to keep the change as I get out the door. But he could be better educated than I am, with family overseas. Regular working types need to stick together, even if we're too exhausted to talk to each other. Anyway, for adjuncts and freelancers, most drivers, too, single payer would be the best solution.
Int. Do you think working more part-time jobs to supplement lost income compromises an adjunct's performance in the classroom?
Cyrus: I'm shitting between classes in a train station, sitting on the can, mulling this one over, and scribbling down my thoughts about it on a leftover napkin from my coffee-on-the-fly between my first two a.m. sections. If I say, "Why, of course not," it's clear I'm only saying that to keep my job whereas if I get ornery and start bitching about my commute and how it adversely affects my students, I may get called a whiner or even lose classes if any supervisors find out. Anyway, there's weird noises coming from the next stall over, and I'm almost already late for my 11 a.m. at Liberty Tech. Oh, shit. My stall is out of paper, so it looks like I'll be using this response.
Int. Any progress with unionizing? Collective bargaining?
Cyrus: You know me, Joe, you know I try to lay low, stay out of trouble, nod at authority, suck in my gut and pretty myself up if I need to talk about my schedule or try to snag an extra class, but I'll tell you a little of what I know. It seems like in the urban areas of blue states, the union bug is catching on. Philly's a tough town, maybe too many overpaid administrators and unionized faculty sucking on the higher-ed teat already, so there's no room for adjuncts to get a slice of the pie at some schools. But I've heard things are taking shape in D.C., L.A., Boston, and Seattle. Also, when adjuncts at some schools form unions, admin at other schools in the area raise pay in response. So the pressure of organized labor can help other academic laborers.
Don't ask about Red America where even adjuncts who teach high school get less than two grand a class and some community college adjuncts barely get $1,500 for a 15-week class. That's a different world. I know an adjunct in rural America renting a two-bedroom house for $600, about $1500 a month worth of housing in any decent section of Philly. But if you can hustle up some courses in one of the expensive cities, there's a good chance you'll get some union benefits even if you still have trouble covering rent, utilities, transportation, and the rest of it.
Int. Generally, how are students dealing with challenges such as loan debt? Are they finally embracing the rigor of critical thinking? In particular, do you ever catch up with former students. Allison Silverman, for example?
Cyrus: I haven't heard from Allison, way too embarrassed to e-mail her after the Isaac Babel seminar ended. Frankly, I was relieved she took the whole thing so well. I have enough problems, so I didn't need any additional entanglements or litigation to wear me down. Believe me, I'm grateful for her kindness and generosity, both in and out of the classroom.
But I think she came from Long Island money, and I'm almost certain she wasn't on financial aid. There's 35 percent out there who don't take any loans for college. These are mainly part of the national and global elite, and then a small percentage of these kids are on academic and athletic scholarships (but don't get on this topic with most of the girls on varsity and the boys who aren't playing Division I football and basketball; a lot of those kids still need loans despite the appearance that they're campus royalty).
So what I'm seeing, according to 2012, is that about 63 percent of college kids need loans, and the average total for undergrad is near 30 grand. This average is notably higher than the average adjunct's total take-home pay in a year. President Obama just signed a bill lowering the percentage due under the government's relatively new "pay as you earn" plans, but that only covers government loans. Sadly, I know adjuncts and others with grad-school debt from private lenders who aren't getting any relief. There are even white-collar career full-timers out there who still haven't recovered from the housing debacle, and they have outstanding debt from law and business degrees that boosted them into a freer-spending bracket in the first place. A part of me is relieved I never became one of those six-figure types who winds up with a wife, family, fat mortgage, etc. I know I'd panic if I ever wound up laid off and underwater on my house while trying to figure out how to send a couple kids to college. I'm lonely, but I've taught myself how to tread water and stay afloat.
Another stat I'm seeing is 25 percent of recent grads have no job at all and another 25 percent report underemployment, and then 36 percent of people aged 18 to 31 live with their parents. So even if the twenty-somethings are getting help with their loans, it looks like they aren't all getting jobs that can move the economy. Having said that, I also see the stock market is skyrocketing, and it makes me even more jealous of anyone who has a 401k or IRA. I don't want to see the next generation wind up like me, career renters driving 13-year-old, no-air manual transmissions as forty-somethings. My elbow hurts from rolling down the windows.
Int. What then has changed if anything in the last 10 years?
Cyrus: National gridlock has increased. The new guy in Texas is a hero to some and a joke to others. President Fern got the wrong stuff done, maybe, but he got stuff done. He could get the Democrats to go along with bombing this country while saving that one from AIDS, letting religious charities in on a chunk of the federal pie, keeping his side of Congress on best behavior, more or less. All that war mobilization creates jobs, and then there's no free lunch, so that keeps us hustling. I know I'm nuts, but I had more adrenalin in 2004 even if I felt like an even guiltier liberal whenever I read the headlines.
I'm so busy and overworked, I don't have time to sort out the "moral issues" that divide us, but I don't see any candidate who could unite working and poor Democrats and Republicans coming along. Do you think that guy would be allowed to speak freely on national mainstream TV? I'm sure you could read about her at truthout or alternet, but don't expect to see her smiling across from one of those national broadcast bubbleheads or bimbos, with car and insurance ads running between segments.
So do your job, try to survive. They pay me to teach, but that's the little I know."
Thank you, Cyrus. For those of you who want a glimpse of academia's secret underbelly, check out Professor Kudera's novel, Fight for Your Long Day, available from Atticus books.... Back in late 2010, this interviewer said this about the novel:
"The Scholar-Pauper Fights the Good Fight."
While Alex Kudera's novel, Fight for Your Long Day, highlights the grave socio-economic injustices of a corrupt academic system, it is much more than a preachy manifesto. Cyrus Duffelman's struggles are that of any of the economically repressed. But when college professors earn Wal-mart wages, it highlights a shocking disconnect between the hollow political rhetoric of the importance of education and the true reality. Cyrus inhabits a world of increasing impoverishment. This is the landscape of essayist and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. This is the time perhaps when we should be re-reading Steinbeck and Orwell.
It would be a cliché to call him a modern day Everyman. Cyrus is a real person with frailties, insecurities, yet with conviction and seriousness about what he does. His long day is his total reality. The past has not served him, so what can the future hold? He does represent a growing class of academic paupers in particular and the growing dominance of menial wages everywhere in America in general whether the work is menial or not. And, yet, it's not little enough. Menial wages, that is. Another sad irony is that the adjunct is no lifetime indentured servant, but rather an endangered species as institutions of higher learning contemplate "satellite hookups and TVs in every classroom...with the finest Indian universities teaching virtual classes long-distance...The fifteen grand a year they were paying the graduate student [or adjunct] has become fifteen hundred for a hungrier South Asian."
Cyrus is doubly invisible. No one "sees" him--just as the adjunct inequity is on no one's radar--and because Cyrus wields no power or status, he hopes not to be seen. Even when he commits an error in judgment, there "is no one to beg forgiveness, so all he can do is correct himself." He continues on not in hope of reward or changing the system, but in adherence to his own personal code of conduct, and he is his own harshest critic.
Professor Kudera's social criticism emerges from Cyrus's quality of life conditions. Between classes, he kills time sitting in a train station, passing for one of the homeless ensconced there. Cyrus alternates between "ogling the ripe melons" of student Allison Silverman while anticipating a late-night tryst with said melons and contemplating Jewish writers in the 1920s who could "smell Hitler and Stalin in the air." Cyrus knows enough to ask "what kind of smell is in the air now?" In our current educational environment, knowledge isn't important; it may even be a rotting corpse which is perhaps what Cyrus smells. Despite his external invisibility, his inner hamster wheel is always turning. The time-worn expression "life of the mind" becomes the "life of the grind."
So, ultimately, Cyrus's fight is for his own standards and integrity in the face of humiliation and futility, a daily quest for survival and the strength to endure. In our "anti-progressive" age, Cyrus is emblematic of a devolving system: the itinerant medieval scholar traveling from one fiefdom to the next in tatters, hoping for a meal or bauble.
If only adjuncts read this book, they would nod and commiserate; as a work of fiction, strongly rooted in social criticism, the general public needs in on it, for one, the parents paying skyrocketing tuition costs, because they should know where the money is going. And it is certainly not in the pockets of the Cyrus Duffelmans of academia.
The book is available at:
Joseph A. Domino has newly released a third novel.